Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer


The Hill Tribe Women of Vietnam: Progress

I first went to Vietnam in 2006 with my then ten-year-old daughter in tow. As part of nearly a month traveling in the country we spent several days far up north near the Chinese border. Nine hours by train northwest of Hanoi to be exact. The over night train from Hanoi arrives in the small, but bustling and fairly charmless town of Lao Cai. It is in Lao Cai, not far from the main train station, where the tall, white “border bridge” with China can be seen from several points in the town. From Lao Cai it’s another 90 minute drive up a two-lane mountain road where you get to view some of the greenest terraced rice paddies in Asia. As the trees get denser and more green, and the road more mountainous, you arrive at the town of Sa Pa, dubbed by the French in the late 1800’s the “Switzerland of Asia” for its terrain and its temperate climate in a region where the normal lowland summer humidity is equal to or higher than its temperature. (The name Sa Pa derived from the French word sapin — fir tree — owing to their abundance in the area.)


During our 2006 trip, as I recounted in my book Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight, one of our most memorable experiences was a trek we took with a group of women from one of the Hill Tribes. Up, up, up we traveled along their mountain path, over the rice paddies, around the wild boars and working oxen and the nearby waterfalls to their villages. We were invited into their homes with a generosity unknown in western civilization, where we saw life pretty much the same as it had been for the previous 300 years. Stilt houses with grains and foodstuffs stored in second-story lofts, sleeping, working, and eating areas on the bottom floor with an open fire pit for warmth in the winters and cooking year-’round. There was then no electricity, and no running water.


Even in 2006, the Hill Tribe women made their way down the mountain daily to Sa Pa to sell their wares — mostly woven items, such as tote bags and satchels and filigree earrings, bracelets and necklaces. These are beautiful, petite women possessing an amazing physical strength, who all bore children very young and who appear many years older than their stated ages.


This summer’s trip to Sa Pa started out pretty much the same, except that my travel partner this time was my husband: the same overnight train, the same drive up the mountain; we even stayed at the same mountain lodge on a hill overlooking the town. And we planned on taking a similar trek to visit the Hill Tribe women. In addition to English, our accompanying Vietnamese guide also spoke two of the Hill Tribe dialects, H’Mong and Tay, which came in very handy, since in one of the Hill Tribe homes we passed along the mountain trail the woman only spoke H’Mong. She was so happy to see us trekking by that she invited us into her home, showed us one of the beautiful garments she was working on, made from woven hemp dyed with indigo, and offered us rice cakes and mountain apples. This lovely woman toiling alone in her humble abode with a 50,000 kilowatt smile was charming beyond measure and seemingly possessed a contentment some of us westerners could only dream about.


As the days progressed, we passed through several other villages, were invited into many other homes, and met several other families, dozens of children, and countless ducks, hogs, piglets, horses, dogs and oxen. Despite the intervening seven years since my first trip there, and the still very primitive nature of their lives, I was nevertheless shocked to notice that in many of the huts there is now electricity — albeit often only a single light bulb — a few of the huts had television with some jerry-rigged electrical/cable wiring which appeared ready to implode, and, I had heard, a couple of the huts had wifi.


Down the mountain in Sa Pa, many of the young Hill Tribe women still sell their wares along the sides of the roads, but because of their excellent English skills, they are now getting work as tour guides to lead treks to their villages. (Their unaccented English is superior in large part because it is learned not in a classroom from native Vietnamese teachers, but by communing with native English speakers who tour the region.) There is also massive construction of new hotels in Sa Pa. In the center of the town itself used to be the main produce market, but it also contained the “Love Market” which acted as the Saturday night social locale for the young Hill Tribe people to find mates — the equivalent of the church social, but without any religious component. On this latest visit, I found that the entire area of the town center was boarded off and one couldn’t tell what was actually being constructed there, although work was clearly taking place. My numerous inquiries never really gleaned a concise answer, though I was told by various people, in sum, that the town was building an oxymoronic-sounding concrete parkway for a new market. Across the street from the old Love Market sits the small yet regal and perfectly proportioned Catholic Church, which now boasted enormous neon lights strung along the outside that changed glaring colors every few seconds, similar to nighttime at LAX.


As our days in the region came to a close, I commented to my husband that I was so glad I’d had the chance to see the region in 2006, just a few years after the country had opened up to foreign travelers, and hence was able to see it in its most pure and authentic form. As this was my husband’s first trip to the region, he was still in visible awe of what he was able to see. An hour later, when I went to reception to check out of the lodge, I reflected to the clerk about the amount of change in Sa Pa in the last few years, to which he replied, “Good you came back now, as in twenty years, Hill Tribe life will be gone and there will be nothing left to see.” The winds of change. The signs of progress. Sigh.

Date Posted:  Aug. 7 2013